Friday, 27 December 2019

Iraq in turmoil

          Iraq is in total chaos from two unconnected threats to its very existence. On the one hand domestic protesters have brought the country to a standstill with their demands for a total clear-out of the government – president, prime minister and all; on the other, ISIS is staging a full-scale regrouping in the vast areas that lie between the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the north and government troops down in the south. 

          Anti-government protests began sweeping across Iraq in September 2019. They quickly turned violent as the government responded with assassination attempts and kidnappings of prominent activists. The latest to be killed was Alui al-Assami. On December 20 two unidentified gunmen riding a motorcycle intercepted Al-Assami in the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, fired on him and killed him instantly. Later that day protesters headed to the headquarters of political parties that are widely seen as affiliates of Iran. and set them ablaze.

         The government’s violent crackdown on protesters has led to the deaths of dozens in Nasiriyah, but it has failed to bring public servants back to work. So far the security forces, or Iran-backed militias in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), have killed nearly 500 protesters, most of them unarmed civilians. Well over 27,000 have been wounded. Live rounds are reported to have been used, and military-grade tear gas canisters fired directly into crowds.

          Meanwhile Iraq’s top Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani has condemned the continued crackdown on demonstrations and called for an early election. After prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi resigned amid national anti-corruption demonstrations, the Iraqi parliament missed its constitutionally mandated duty to nominate a replacement. Despite rumors to the contrary, no-one had been nominated by December 25.

          Officials say that Iran, a key player in Iraqi politics, wanted to install Qusay al-Suhail, who served as education minister in the previous government. But protesters categorically reject his candidacy, along with anyone from the wider political establishment which has been in place since Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003. They are demanding the resignation of both President Salih and of parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbussi.

          Electoral reform has been among one of the protesters' top demands, and the national parliament in Baghdad has approved several articles of a new draft election Bill. The draft law proposes changing the electoral system to a mix between direct voting and party lists, but this latter element has already been rejected by protesters, who believe it gives the parties too much power and would allow them to disregard voters’ wishes.

          It is obvious that some sort of resolution on the political front is still a long way off.

          Meanwhile ISIS is reforming and diversifying. On December 22, 2019 the BBC led its main news bulletins with a report indicating that two years after losing the last of its territory in Iraq, ISIS is re-organizing in the country. The report claimed that ISIS was mounting a sophisticated insurgency.

          The militants are now more skilled and more dangerous than al-Qaeda, according to Lahur Talabany, a top Kurdish counter-terrorism official. A different kind of ISIS has emerged, he says, which, to avoid being a target, no longer wants to control territory. Instead – like their predecessors in al-Qaeda before them – the extremists have gone underground in Iraq's Hamrin Mountains.

          "This is the hub for ISIS right now," he said. "It's a long range of mountains, and very difficult for the Iraqi army to control. There are a lot of hide-outs and caves."

          The militants are benefitting from strained relations between Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government. Kurdish intelligence officials estimate that ISIS is10,000 strong in Iraq with between 4,000 and 5,000 fighters, and a similar number of sleeper cells and sympathisers.

          Reestablished in northern Iraq , ISIS is raising money by extorting payments from farmers under penalty of destroying crops. It also has investments in markets ranging from car sales and fish farming to production of cannabis. It is in the ungoverned spaces in eastern Syria and across northern Iraq, particularly in the border areas between the Kurdish regions of Iraq and those that the central government controls, that have been taken over by ISIS. And small ISIS units are operating in the Iraqi provinces of Nineveh, Salahuddin, Kirkuk, Diyala and Anbar.

          ISIS has been recruiting followers among the tens of thousands of people housed in the Kurdish-run displacement camps in Syria, especially Al Hol, home to 70,000 people. To this must be added some 10,000 ISIS fighters in separate makeshift prisons.

          More than a year after Trump’s declaration of victory over ISIS, the movement is rising from its ashes like the legendary phoenix. A politically ravaged Iraq, its government clinging precariously to power, has provided prime conditions for ISIS to stage its comeback. Unless the West takes notice reasonably soon, the five-year battles of 2014-2019 may have to be fought all over again.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 31 December 2019:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 28 December 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 28 December 2019:

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Britain repudiates Jeremy Corbyn - the Jewish dimension

This article of mine appears in the new edition of the Jerusalem Report, dated 6 January 2020
          Britain’s 2019 general election was both historic and unique. It was historic in the scale of the nation’s rejection of the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn – not since 1935 had Labour suffered so massive an electoral defeat. It was unique in the fact that never before had antisemitism and the interests of the Jewish community played a role in a British election.

          Commenting on the election result the former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone – suspended but never expelled from the Labour Party for a succession of antisemitic remarks – said: “The Jewish vote wasn’t very helpful.” But the Jewish vote was not very significant either. There are about 290,000 Jews in the UK, some 0.4 percent of the population. They tend to be concentrated in certain locations within the big cities – London, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow. So although the Jewish vote could perhaps have influenced the result in a few constituencies, it could not possibly have had any significant effect on the overall picture.

          Nevertheless, the issue of antisemitism was undoubtedly a major factor before and during the election campaign in eroding confidence in the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and in the party’s eventual electoral downfall. The 2019 election was lost by Labour on two issues: Brexit and Corbyn’s unpopularity.

          Large swathes of Labour’s traditional working class supporters in the centre and north of England had voted Leave in the Brexit referendum, while Labour’s middle-class professionals and new, young, urban-based adherents were solidly Remain. In attempting to mollify both by adopting a so-called “neutral” position on the issue, Corbyn succeeded in satisfying neither. His core working-class support felt betrayed by his failure to carry through his initial promise to implement the result of the referendum, and deserted Labour in droves.

          Labour canvassers attempting to drum up support on the doorstep found that Labour’s Brexit failure was matched by a widespread rejection of Corbyn himself as a possible prime minister. He was perceived as unpatriotic, untrustworthy on the issue of the nation’s security, and tarred with the brush of antisemitism – in that order.

          The antisemitism issue had been highlighted in an unprecedented intervention by the UK’s Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, shortly after the election was called. In an article in The Times, Britain’s leading newspaper of record, he virtually urged both the Jewish community and the nation as a whole, not to vote Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10 Downing Street as prime minister. His article was endorsed almost immediately by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the leader of the Church of England.

          "With the heaviest of hearts,” wrote Rabbi Mirvis, “I call upon the citizens of our great country to study what has been unfolding before our very eyes,” setting out in stark detail some of the main failures in leadership on the issue of antisemitism in the Labour party that had marked Corbyn’s period in office. We have watched with incredulity, he said, “as supporters of the Labour leadership have hounded parliamentarians, party members and even staff out of the party for facing down anti-Jewish racism. Even as they received unspeakable threats against themselves and their families, the response of the Labour leadership was utterly inadequate.

          “We have endured quibbling and prevarication over whether the party should adopt the most widely accepted definition of antisemitism in the world. When the breakthrough came it was not without amendments, suggesting Labour knows more about antisemitism than Jewish people do.”

          “Mendacious fiction” was how the Chief Rabbi described claims by the Labour leadership to be doing everything it reasonably could to tackle anti-Jewish racism, and that it has “investigated every single case”. He maintained that there are “at least 130 outstanding cases currently before the party – some dating back years – and thousands more have been reported but remain unresolved.”

          Rabbi Mirvis asked how complicit in prejudice would a leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition have to be in order to be considered unfit for high office.

          “Would associations with those who have openly incited hatred against Jews be enough?” he queried. “Would support for a racist mural, depicting powerful hook-nosed Jews supposedly getting rich at the expense of the weak and downtrodden be enough? Would describing as “friends” those who endorse and even perpetrate the murder of Jews be enough?”

          His wry conclusion was: “It seems not.”

          Elsewhere in the article the Chief Rabbi wrote: “Many members of the Jewish community can hardly believe that this is the same party that they proudly called their political home for more than a century… This is the Labour Party in name only.”

          He concluded: “It is not my place to tell any person how they should vote. I simply pose the following question: What will the result of this election say about the moral compass of our country? …Be in no doubt – the very soul of our nation is at stake.”

          The last opinion polls before election day were far from unanimous. Some predicted a hung parliament like the one Boris Johnson was seeking to escape from, with no party gaining an outright majority. Most forecast a small working majority for Johnson’s Conservative party, with the more adventurous suggesting a margin of error reaching as high as 40 seats.

          Then, on the dot of 10 pm, with the voting stations firmly closed, the media announced the result of the nationwide exit poll. To the total incredulity not only of the TV and radio presenters, but of the nation as a whole, it appeared that the Labour party had suffered a major defeat, losing nearly 50 seats, while the Conservatives, with a total tally of some 370 seats, had won a majority over all other parties of something like 80.

          Next day one UK journalist, Allison Pearson, wrote: ”Oh, that exit poll! Will we ever forget the sense of joy’n’relief intermingled when it flashed up on the BBC? Immediately, I called my Jewish friend. “Thank God, thank God,” she said, over and over, a lifelong Labour voter made politically homeless by the terrible Trots.” Pearson concluded her article with: “I hope the Chief Rabbi is pleased. The soul of our nation is intact.”

          Labour’s electoral débacle started early. The first results began to appear at about 11.30 pm. The first two were Labour seats returning candidates with reduced majorities. Then came Blyth Valley, a constituency so solidly Labour that it had been considered beyond the reach of the Conservatives. Lo and behold, it had confounded all expectations and chosen a Conservative as its Member of Parliament – a Conservative, moreover, tantalizingly named Ian Levy. Mr Levy’s family claims a 500-year ancestry in Blyth, a coastal town in the south-east of the county of Northumberland. So shocked by the result was Levy, a mental health worker, that with tears in his eyes he could hardly deliver his victory speech.

           Johnson won the election on a slogan of just three words – just as he had achieved his surprising victory in the Brexit referendum. On that occasion his campaign was masterminded by the maverick strategist Dominic Cummings, who devised the crowd-puller: “Take Back Control”. For the 2019 election, Johnson summoned back the young Australian strategist who had devised and carried through his two successful bids for the London mayoralty, and the Conservative’s 2015 general election campaign. Isaac Levido left his job as deputy director of Australia’s Liberal Party in August 2019 and came to the UK to put the Conservative party on a war footing, working under the general direction of Dominic Cummings. Cummings no doubt had a say in the three-word vote-winning slogan repeated constantly by Johnson during the campaign: “Get Brexit Done”.

          That slogan will persist at least until the UK actually leaves the EU on January 31, 2020. But Johnson has a broader vision for the country - a vision drawing its inspiration from Britain’s nineteenth century Jewish-born prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Back in the 1840s, while leading a rebel group called “Young England” in the Tory party (the predecessor of today’s Conservatives), he wrote two novels in which he expounded his view that the rapid industrialization of Britain had widened the chasm in society between the rich and the poor.

          Into the mouth of one of his characters in Sybil, or The Two Nations, he put: “Two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.” Although Disraeli himself never used the phrase “One Nation”, it was under that soubriquet that his political philosophy was subsequently adopted by the Conservative party, and had an enormous influence on its development. As Boris Johnson has declared: “I'm a one-nation Tory. There is a duty on the part of the rich to the poor and to the needy.”

          Standing outside the prime minister’s London residence in Downing Street, after the final results of Britain’s 2019 general election had been published, Johnson reiterated the underlying philosophy of his predecessor, Benjamin Disraeli: “In winning this election we have won votes and the trust of people who have never voted Conservative before…Those people want change. We cannot, must not, let them down. And in delivering change we must change too. We must recognize the incredible reality that we now speak as a one-nation Conservative Party literally for everyone.” 

          Johnson shares with Disraeli another deeply-held political philosophy – Zionism. Like his eminent predecessor, Johnson has declared himself “a passionate Zionist.” Unlike Corbyn, who promised to recognize the state of Palestine and end arms exports to Israel if he became prime minister, Johnson is enthusiastically in favour of expanding all aspects of Anglo-Israeli trade, which has been growing exponentially in the past few years. Under the Johnson government, UK-Israeli relations are likely to become even closer across the board, not least in the high-tech, security and intelligence fields. Post-Brexit Britain is eager to expand relationships with friendly nations outside the EU. Israel stands high on that list. The UK’s 2019 general election is likely to prove highly beneficial not only to its Jewish community, but to Israel as well.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 27 December 2019:

Friday, 20 December 2019

Turkey racks up tension in the eastern Med

          There was reason behind Turkey’s invasion in 1974 of northern Cyprus, an area largely inhabited by ethnic Turks. Turkey was reacting to a coup, masterminded by the then military junta in Greece, aimed at overturning the Cypriot government and substituting one favoring Enosis, or union with Greece.

          But strong-arm tactics, no matter how justified, had fallen out of favour. Turkey eventually seized nearly 40 percent of the island, and set up the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), but the world has never accepted its legitimacy. It has been recognized by no international organization and no country other than Turkey itself. Despite many attempts over the years to re-unify Cyprus, a political accommodation has never been achieved. As for dislodging the illegal Turkey-backed regime by military force, that has never seemed a viable option. No nation or international body has been prepared to take on Turkey’s formidable military machine.

          So for most of the past 45 years the issue has been one of those many unresolved political problems that the world seems content to view with a blind eye, like Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014. But the discovery around 2010 of vast reserves of liquefied natural gas (LNG) off the coasts of Israel and Cyprus was bound to bring equally vast consequences in its train.

          Among the first, and perhaps the least anticipated, has been the creation of a new geopolitical entity in the eastern Mediterranean – a tripartite alliance of Greece, Cyprus and Israel that promises to bring both stability to the region, and the prospect of enormous technological, economic and environmental advances.
          The next, and even more surprising development, was the foundation in January 2019 of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) by a consortium consisting of Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Energy ministers from each met in Cairo in July 2019 to discuss how to accelerate the development of the region’s vast gas resources and to increase cooperation. The aim was to pave the way for a “sustainable regional gas market” by fostering regional energy cooperation.

          Turkey is not a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and does not recognize the government of Cyprus, its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), its maritime border agreements with Egypt, Israel or Lebanon, or the licenses that Cyprus has awarded to foreign energy companies. Having positioned itself outside the international agreements, Turkey has been drilling for some years in waters internationally recognized as being part of Cyprus’s EEZ. Accordingly, it was not invited to participate in the new Forum.

          The EU has repeatedly said it considers Turkey’s drilling offshore Cyprus as illegal and, together with the US, has warned Turkey to halt its operations. In July the EU suspended all EU-Turkey high-level dialogue, and asked the European Investment Bank to review its lending activities in Turkey. In November 2019 the EU imposed new sanctions on Turkey, saying they would be lifted as soon as Turkey ceased its unauthorized drilling operations.

          Turkey is driven by a sort of illegal logic. Having seized and occupied northern Cyprus, it is now claiming a share in the vast oil and liquefied natural gas bonanza that has unexpectedly appeared off the coastline of its unrecognized Republic. It describes the areas in question as part of the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot EEZs. Turkey does, of course, have a Mediterranean coastline, but it runs to the north of Cyprus, while the gas reserves are in the so-called Energy Triangle south and east of the island.

          On December 15 Turkey racked up tension in the region by sending a military drone to Cyprus to protect its two ships drilling for oil and gas. The drone flew from the southern coast of Turkey, landed in an air base in Turkish-occupied north Cyprus, and was immediately deployed on its first mission. Reacting to the immediate objections from the EU, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to close two key US bases on Turkish soil – Incirlik, from where American jets target Islamic State targets, and Kurecik, home to a NATO radar station.

          In adopting an obviously aggressive stance, Erdogan is reacting to the US threat of sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles. He is also angry about recent votes in Congress recognizing the 1915 mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide. Erdogan is also making a pre-emptive strike against Washington’s plans to establish a security organization in the eastern Mediterranean based on the cooperation of countries like Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Jordan – a project reported to be discussed at the trilateral summit between Greece, Cyprus and Israel scheduled for December 19 and 20.

          Meanwhile the vast potential of the oil and gas reserves in the Energy Triangle is beginning to be realized. Israel is to start pipeline exports to Egypt before the end of 2019, while Cyprus has also reached a provisional deal to pipe gas to Egypt from its Aphrodite field. 

          A key infrastructure project in the region is the EastMed pipeline, planned for completion by 2025. With the political backing of Cyprus, Greece, Israel and Italy this ambitious 2100 km pipeline is designed to link the offshore gas resources of both Cyprus and Israel to Greece and Italy. Turkey’s frustration at being excluded from these highly lucrative enterprises is understandable, but it is not likely to win a share by way of a maverick effort directed against the combined will of the rest of the world.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 December 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 21 December 2019:

Published in Israel Hayom, 26 December 2019:

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

An un-put-downable thriller

This review of mine appears in the new edition of The Jerusalem Report dated  23 December 2019

           In “The Persian Gamble”, Joel C Rosenberg picks up the threads of his riveting best-selling spy thriller, “The Kremlin Conspiracy”, and races ahead with the follow-up. 
          The Russian president, Alexander Luganov, has been assassinated, along with the head of the FSB, Russia’s security service. The killer is Oleg Kraskin, the president’s son-in-law who, totally disillusioned with the policies being pursued by the Russian government, is already preparing to defect to the United States.  But when Kraskin learns of a nuclear deal that Luganov is negotiating with North Korea, and realizes that it could trigger a new world war, he takes the split-second decision to kill the president. 
          Marcus Ryker, former US secret service agent, is in Moscow to spirit the defecting Kraskin out of the country, while Jennifer Morris, the CIA station chief in Moscow, is standing by to help him.  After the killing, Kraskin duly meets up with them, but an already difficult mission is made ten times more so when they realize that they are on the run with the man who killed the president. 
          From this beginning Rosenberg fashions a fast-moving page-turner of a thriller, played out in an entirely plausible contemporary setting.  The reader is held riveted by a plot in which succeeding events build, one after another, to a hair-raising climax..
          Rosenberg’s storyline is, in some respects, too convincing for comfort.  The elements that could make it happen are all present in today’s febrile world.
          The plot is easy to follow, though the storyline moves us rapidly from location to location.  To help readers chart their way through it. Rosenberg provides a cast of characters at the start of the book.  He lists no less than 36, each with a brief description. 
          The real villain in Rosenberg’s take on today’s world is Iran.  With nearly two billion dollars handed over to Iran by the US as part of the nuclear deal struck in 2015, Iran’s Supreme Leader approves the purchase of five Russian-made nuclear warheads from North Korea.  It takes a good deal of persuasion on Marcus’s part, but finally US defence and security chiefs authorize him to intercept the warheads before they reach Iranian soil.  Once they were in Iranian hands, they come to realize, war in the Middle East would become inevitable.
          In attempting to accomplish this larger objective Marcus Ryker, together with the defector-assassin Oleg Kraskin and CIA chief Jennifer Morris, have to avoid capture by the Russians.  The plane in which they hoped to bring Kraskin out of Russia is blown out of the sky, but they eject from it just in time.  Then it’s a cat-and-mouse game evading the police and security across Russia, while Ryker tries to convince his contacts back in the US about the Iranian-North Korean deal, and that the nuclear weapons are within Iran’s grasp.
          Finally Marcus makes a deal with the US government he will rejoin the secret service provided they allow him to intercept the five nuclear warheads, which are already at sea,.  Ryker’s efforts to track down the ship carrying the weapons, and the breathtaking series of events when he finally succeeds, forms the final section of Rosenberg’s novel.  The eventual showdown is between hero and villain Marcus Ryker and the Iranian leader who has masterminded the purchase of the nuclear warheads from North Korea, Alireza al-Zanjani.
          Marcus Ryker is a typical action-savvy hero figure in all but one respect.  He is a practising Christian, and his deeply held faith emerges time and again as the plot progresses.  This aspect of the novel perhaps explains why it has been published by Tyndale House Publishers.  Founded in 1962, Tyndal House is the world’s largest privately held Christian publisher.
          At nearly 500 pages “The Persian Gamble” is not a short book, but it is constructed from very short and sharp chapters – 93 of them.  As a result the reader is kept on the alert, reluctant to leave the story, turning time and again to the next short chapter, eager to follow one incident on to the next.  “The Persian Gamble” is a thriller that falls within the category of “un-put-downable.”  It is highly recommended.

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Time for electoral reform in Israel

          Throughout Israel’s constitutional logjam it has been difficult to see the wood for the trees. The trees that have been blocking the view are the political maneuverings of the main protagonists. Many, if not most, voters believe that some form of unity government was well within the grasp of either Benjamin Netanyahu or Benny Gantz, if either – or, indeed, if Avidgor Liberman – had deigned to compromise. Their rigid red lines, however, proved too powerful a disincentive to do that. As a result the national interest, which is crying out for a return to effective government, has suffered

          The wood, hidden from view by these burgeoning trees, is the fact that it is Israel’s current electoral system which has landed the country in this mess. The way governments are elected is in urgent need of reconsideration and reform.

          What are its obvious weaknesses? To anyone nurtured in the bosom of US or UK democracy, the most obvious problem is that Israeli general elections do not return a majority party but require weeks of intensive back-room negotiations before a government can be formed, and that sometimes these negotiations fail to deliver. Having failed twice, what assurance is there that a third general election would yield a different outcome?

          Israel’s system presupposes that all governments will be coalitions. But no immutable law states that democratic governments must be coalitions. The normal result of general elections in the UK and the US is that one or other of the two main parties is returned to power with a working majority and subsequently forms a government. Neither require weeks of sometimes unsavory wheeling and dealing following elections.

          When the Israeli electorate go to the polls, they are asked to choose the one party among the many competing – sometimes 30 or more – with whose policies they most agree. The number of seats that each party gains in the Knesset is almost exactly proportional to the number of votes the party obtains in the general election. That is a democratic plus.

          The downside is that inevitably the nation’s vote is fractured. No one party can emerge as the outright winner. Hence the back-room trading and bargaining. Concessions are demanded by the smaller parties in return for their support. The policies finally agreed between the cobbled-together majority can be far from the policies any elector voted for.

          A considerable additional weakness in the current arrangements is the total lack of personal engagement between members of the Knesset and the people. MKs gain their seats because of their position on their party lists. In the US, citizens know who the two senators representing their State is, just as they know by name the individual who represents their constituency in Congress.

          The UK is divided into 650 constituencies, each of which returns one member of Parliament (MP) in a first-past-the-post voting system. Once elected that MP is deemed to represent all the voters in the constituency, and any of them with a problem would look to “their” MP for help. Every voter therefore has a direct personal link with an MP, whether that MP is a backbencher or a minister – even the prime minister.

          The main disadvantage of first-past-the-post is that seats in parliament do not match the national voting pattern. Candidates can and do win a seat having gained far less than 50 percent of the votes in their constituency. The system produces large majorities but a democratic deficit.

          Proposals to reform Israel’s electoral system by combining the constituency concept with proportionality have been put forward on several occasions. The last attempt, in 1988, proposed that Israel be divided into 60 constituencies, each of which would elect one MK, while another 60 would be elected by the current system. Electors would all vote for both a candidate and a list. The proposal foundered.

          Back in 2005, President Moshe Katsav set up a commission to examine constitutional issues including the electoral system. It met regularly for more than a year, and it too finally favoured a combined system although with a different constituency structure. The commission’s recommendations, like earlier attempts at electoral reform, were not followed up. Nor indeed were subsequent efforts, like those of Professor Menahem Ben-Sasson in 2006.

          This is a nettle that must be grasped. The dire events of 2019 point in no other direction. Electoral reform simply must be a major element in the political program of Israel’s next government, whenever it is formed.

Published in Israel Hayom, 3 December 2019: 

Monday, 2 December 2019

Palestinians edge towards elections

          Elections have become fashionable in the Holy Land. Israel has had two of them in the past year and seems poised for a third. Now the Palestinian Authority (PA) has caught the bug. After lengthy haggling, the PA, Hamas, Fatah and a clutch of other Palestinian factions have agreed to hold elections for the legislature and then for president early next year.

          It’s not before time. The last effort was 14 years ago, back in 2006. The outcome was so disastrous that there has been little appetite for repeating the experiment. Hamas won more votes and more seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) than the ruling Fatah party, but when President Mahmoud Abbas attempted to form a government of national unity, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya refused to serve as prime minister under him. Instead, led by Khaled Mashal, Hamas mounted a truly bloody coup in the Gaza strip, and ejected Fatah bag and baggage. With brief periods of respite, Hamas and Fatah have been at daggers drawn ever since.

          The struggle between Hamas and Fatah for the soul of the Palestinian people began almost from the moment that Hamas was created in 1987 as a radical off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas regarded the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), founded in 1964 to “liberate Palestine through armed struggle”, as not effective enough, despite the string of terrorist actions it perpetrated.

          When the PLO entered into peace talks with Israel, Hamas was appalled. Its leader, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, condemned the first Oslo Accord agreement of 1993, and rejected the PLO recognition of the State of Israel. Yasser Arafat, he declared, was “destroying Palestinian society and sowing the seeds of discord and division among Palestinians.”

          Hamas was never comfortable either with the PA, which emerged from the Oslo accords, nor with its claim to be the sole representative of the Palestinian people. It rejected the PA’s “play it long” policy of pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within pre-1967 boundaries, even though that was only the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine. Equally Hamas opposed Abbas’s efforts to obtain recognition of a State of Palestine within the United Nations, since to do so would also legitimize Israel.

          At the heart of the Hamas-Fatah conflict is this fundamental difference about the most effective route to reach their common objective. Hamas has made no secret of its aspiration to replace Fatah as the governing body of the West Bank. Sometimes it chooses to acknowledge Abbas as Palestinian leader; sometimes it refuses to recognize him as PA president at all on the grounds that his presidential mandate, granted in 2005 for a four-year term, has long expired. Hamas has, moreover, consistently tried to undermine his PA administration by forming militant cells in the West Bank to launch attacks on Israel.

          Ismail Haniyeh, who became leader of Hamas in 2017, pursued the same hard line. Abbas reacted by attempting to force Hamas into submission through cutting financial support and restricting the Strip’s access to electricity. The many efforts at reconciliation between the parties, often sponsored by Egypt, have failed, and the Hamas-Fatah schism even led some to speculate on an eventual full-scale separation between the two Palestinian communities.

          The idea of new elections has come and gone several times over the past few years, always to be frustrated at the last minute. They were scheduled to be held between April and October 2014 in accordance with a Fatah-Hamas agreement reached in April 2014, but were delayed indefinitely. In October 2017, under a so-called Hamas-Fatah reconciliation deal, general elections were agreed to take place by the end of 2018. Once more they failed to materialize.

          On 26 September 2019, nothing daunted, Abbas again announced that he intended to set a date for elections. Hamas responded positively. but on 6 November Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a splinter terrorist organization active in Gaza, rejected Abbas’s terms, which specified that in order to be eligible to run, candidates would have to recognize the agreements signed by the PLO. Most of these, based as they are on the PA’s stated position of supporting the two-state solution, are anathema to Hamas.

          None the less, and protesting vigorously at the PA's decision to stop demonstrations in Ramallah in support of Palestinians jailed by Israel, Hamas finally, on November 26, signed its agreement to hold legislative and presidential elections in 2020. Judging by the past record, the chances of these elections actually taking place must stand at no more than 50-50.

          In any case, a possible hurdle stands in the way. On November 11 Abbas said that there would be no new Palestinian elections unless they included east Jerusalem. Chief of Hamas politburo, Ismail Haniyeh, endorsed that. East Jerusalem is administered by Israel, and its Palestinians citizens have the special status of “permanent residents”. Normally demonstrations of Palestinian sovereignty are not permitted within Jerusalem, but in the 2006 elections Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem were permitted to vote (they did so at post offices), and there seems no good reason why the same should not apply in 2020.

          Free and fair legislative elections whose result is respected by the contending parties could start healing the divisions which ravage the Palestinian body politic. As for new presidential elections, they are overdue by a decade at least, and could restore democratic legitimacy to Abbas who, despite his 84 years, shows no signs of stepping aside. The question is – will they actually take place?

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 5 December 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 4 December 2019:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 December 2019:

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Labour’s failures over antisemitism: the chickens come home to roost

This article of mine appears in the new edition of the Jerusalem Report, dated 9 December 2019
          Britain goes to the polls on December 12. Never before has a major political party entered into a UK general election campaign with two unresolved investigations hanging over its head. That is the position in which the British Labour party finds itself. Because the findings of the two inquiries, and their final reports, might influence the result of the election, it seems unlikely that they will be published before polling day. 

          Both investigations centre on the widely-held perception that the Labour party has been insufficiently diligent in its reaction to antisemitism within its ranks.

          To the surprise of everyone, and to the distaste of at least half the Labour MPs, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of Britain’s Labour party in September 2015. Corbyn was a rebel. He was known to hold hard left-wing views, at variance with the social democratic policies of his own party. Throughout a long parliamentary career he frequently voted against his party. He despised capitalism, colonialism, America, NATO, the UK’s nuclear deterrent and Israel, among a variety of other issues. Contrariwise he supported Marxist regimes like Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea, and groups using violence and terror to further their cause such as the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah. He saw them as freedom fighters, and believed in engaging with them as a means of bringing opposing sides together.

          From the moment that Corbyn became leader, hard-left views on a variety of matters became mainstream within the Labour party. Among them was “intersectionality”, the accepted left-wing term for perceiving a direct link between all victims of oppression, whether sexual, racial, political, or economic. Palestinians were deemed oppressed, and therefore to be supported. Israel was deemed the oppressor, and therefore to be opposed. The conclusion, in approved left-wing doctrine, was unequivocal and unchallengeable support for the Palestinian cause.

          Some zealous supporters of Corbyn found it difficult to separate opposition to Israel from opposition to Jews generally – Israel was, after all, the Jewish state. In the case of some Corbyn supporters, anti-Zionism morphed easily enough into frank antisemitism.

          When some high profile Labour figures strayed so obviously beyond acceptable limits into openly antisemitic comments and were suspended from the party, public unease about the situation within Labour began to grow. In May 2016 Corbyn felt obligated to set up an inquiry into antisemitism within the party. He appointed Shami Chakrabati, then director of an organization promoting civil liberties, to chair it. In June 2016 she presented her report. It concluded that the party was not "overrun by antisemitism or other forms of racism", although there was an "occasionally toxic atmosphere" and "clear evidence of ignorant attitudes". In August 2016 she was made a life peer, and is now Baroness Chakrabati, shadow Attorney-General for England and Wales.

          Her report did nothing to stem the tide of antisemitism within Labour, nor to inhibit a succession of revelations linking Corbyn himself pretty closely with terrorists who drew no distinction between anti-Zionism and straightforward antisemitism. Meanwhile public criticism mounted about Labour’s ineffectiveness in tackling antisemitism within its ranks.

          In February 2019 nine Labour MPs resigned from the party largely on these grounds, and in May the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced that it was setting up an inquiry into whether Labour had "unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish". The EHRC had only once before ventured into the political arena, by investigating a fringe right-wing racist party.

          The Equality and Human Rights Commission was founded in 2007, bringing together three former bodies concerned with promoting equality in specific social areas. Its remit is to ensure that equality laws are enforced, and that discrimination and harassment ae eliminated. It was given legal powers to compel employers and organizations to cease discriminatory practices and to make such changes as are necessary to prevent future discrimination or non-compliance.

           The EHRC investigation into the Labour party is one of the two whose report and recommendations are awaited.

          On July 9, 2019 three Labour peers – Lords Turnberg, Trieseman and Darzi – resigned from the party, accusing Corbyn of antisemitism. The following evening the BBC broadcast a TV documentary on its main domestic channel titled: “Is Labour Antisemitic?” During the program a number of former party officials alleged that senior Labour figures had interfered in the process of dealing with antisemitism complaints. The whistleblowers also claimed that they had faced a huge increase in antisemitism complaints since Corbyn became leader in 2015, and described the great personal strain they had faced in trying to handle them.

          Before the documentary was broadcast, Corbyn’s campaigning group Momentum tweeted a 40-second video which attacked the programme’s veteran director, John Ware, claiming that he had a “record of public political hostility to Jeremy Corbyn, his politics and leadership of the Labour party”.

          After the broadcast Jon Lansman, the co-founder of the Momentum campaign group, called it a “politically motivated documentary into a subject that demands serious and fair discussion”.

           The Labour party then activated the BBC Complaints process. It issued a formal objection to the programme by way of a 28-page letter. In it the party alleged that the documentary failed to meet the BBC’s standards because of “the tendentious and politically slanted script; the bias in the selection of interviewees; and the failure to identify the political affiliations or records of interviewees .” It claimed the programme, “a highly controversial, sensitive and contested subject” was “a one-sided authored polemic”.

          The BBC takes its complaints procedure very seriously. It publishes a 45-page document entitled: “BBC Complaints Framework and Procedures” which sets out in comprehensive detail how the public should go about registering complaints, and the step-by-step process followed by the BBC in dealing with them. The BBC is obligated to take all complaints seriously and to report back to the complainant, usually within two weeks. It has been considering the Labour party’s objections for four months.

          Shortly after the forthcoming general election was announced, The Guardian newspaper reported, on well-founded information, that the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit – the top level of its internal complaints process – had completed its investigation into Labour’s complaints about the documentary, and that none have been upheld. The Unit’s conclusions would back the programme makers.

          There is no indication, however, that the BBC will announce its findings before Britain goes to the polls on December 12.

          There may be other fallout, however. 

“Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so, ad infinitum.”

          Since April 2017 the BBC itself has had an external regulator – the Office for Communications, known as Ofcom. It is authorized to act as a final appeal in the BBC’s complaints procedure. If the Labour party is dissatisfied with the BBC’s response to its complaint, it could apply to Ofcom. The whole matter may yet have a long way to travel.

          There are a number of other loose ends.

          “Is Labour Antisemitic?” featured interviews with a succession of Labour whistleblowers who explained that soon after Corbyn’s election as party leader, they found themselves contending with his most senior aides who continually attempted to subvert the system by meddling in disciplinary cases relating to antisemitism. Labour’s press team claimed during the broadcast that the staffers featured had political axes to grind and lacked credibility.

          As a result five ex-Labour party staffers are now reported to be suing Labour for libel over alleged smears they have been subjected to since the programme was transmitted.

          Separately John Ware, the TV director responsible for the programme, recently began libel proceedings against the Labour party over its public criticism of his reputation in public statements issued in advance of the broadcast.

          Either or both these cases could emerge into the public domain before December 12 reminding the British public, if reminder were needed, of the toxic issue of antisemitism that still clings to the Labour party. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 27 November 2019

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Is Iran losing its grip?

          Iran’s international power structure is under severe threat from mass disaffection.

          Ever since the Islamic revolution of 1979 swept the Shah from Iran’s Peacock Throne, its leaders have been painstakingly building Iranian influence in the Middle East. The regime has been single-minded in pursuit of political and religious hegemony in the region. Its strategy – which has included the acquisition of nuclear capability – has involved strengthening the power of Shi’ite entities and coordinating them into what has been called a “Shia Crescent”. This arc of Iranian influence now stretches from Lebanon across to Syria, then to Iraq, through Iran itself and via the Gulf state of Bahrain down to Yemen. In Lebanon, Iran exercises control by way of Hezbollah, in Yemen it sustains the Houthis, and up to 70 percent of the citizens of the Island kingdom of Bahrain are Shia, though it is ruled by a Sunni royal family.

          In the last few weeks severe and widespread popular protests have erupted across Iran’s sphere of influence. This wave began in Iraq, was followed in Lebanon and, on Friday November 15, burst out inside Iran itself, triggered when the government announced a 300 percent increase in the price of fuel linked to a tightening of the rationing system. Motorists are combining to block roads and switch off their engines and, in some cases, abandon their vehicles.

          A succession of popular protests have been plaguing Iran for a good few years. Massive corruption at the highest levels, allied to economic mismanagement and continuing political and social suppression, have certainly not been helped by severe and extended US sanctions. The situation might be convincing some Iranians that their main hope lies in regime change.

          So the Islamic Republic is struggling to maintain its legitimacy at home, as well as its influence abroad.

          In both Iraq and Lebanon demonstrations against corruption and a lack of economic reform have erupted recently and show no sign of diminishing. In both countries, the unprecedented protests are demonstrating that for ordinary citizens Iran and its proxies have merely served to worsen their conditions.

          In the face of that harsh reality, all Iran’s successes count for nothing. Yes, Hezbollah scored a success in last year’s parliamentary elections in Lebanon, and secured valuable seats in the cabinet. But now they are associated in the public mind with the failures of the government, and protests are as great in Hezbollah regions of Lebanon as elsewhere.

          In Syria, Iran has allied itself with Russia and even with arch-enemy Turkey, in preserving President Bashar al-Assad in power. Iran’s long-term objectives in the Middle East depend on maintaining a power footprint in Syria. But it has done nothing towards resettling the millions of Syrians who are internally displaced, nor the millions of Syrian refugees living in camps in Turkey, Lebanon and elsewhere.

         Writing in the journal Foreign Policy, Hanin Ghaddar, Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute's Geduld Program on Arab Politics, believes that in building its power base in the region, the Iranian regime failed to notice that “power requires a vision for the day after,” as she puts it. “As events unfold in the region, Iran is failing to rule. Iraq and Lebanon are good examples.”

          Iran created proxies in both countries, gave them power through funding and arms, and helped them infiltrate state institutions. Today, she maintains, state institutions in Iraq and Lebanon instead of protecting and serving the people, have to protect and serve Iranian interests.

          The protests in Lebanon have arisen because the Lebanese public are realizing that the enemy is within – it is their own government and political leaders, especially since Hezbollah has acquired a tight grip on so many levers of power. In fact Lebanon is widely referred to as “a state within a state”. For decades Hezbollah has prided itself on protecting the poor and dispossessed. Now Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has sided with the authorities against the people in the streets. So now. for the first time since Hezbollah was formed in the 1980s, Lebanese Shi’ites are turning against it. In Nabatieh, the group’s heartland in the south of Lebanon, Shi’ite protesters even burned the offices of Hezbollah’s leaders.

          Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, resigned some weeks ago. One projected successor has withdrawn his candidacy. Whenever a new government is formed its first challenge will be the economic crisis, rooted in years of state waste, corruption and mismanagement. Its second will be to contain the nationwide protest movement that wants to see the old elite gone from power. Meanwhile protesters are burning tyres, throwing stones at soldiers, and blocking roads across the country, as the demonstrations show no sign of slackening.

         In Iraq hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets since October 1, demanding more jobs, an end to corruption, and better public services. On November 15 Iraq's top Shia cleric gave them his support. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shia Muslim cleric, said that corruption among the ruling elite has reached "unbearable limits". Many people, he said, lack basic needs while top leaders "share the country's wealth among themselves and disregard each other's corruption."

          Although Iraq contains the world's fifth-largest proven reserves of oil, nearly three-fifths of its 40 million people live on less than six dollars a day, and millions lack access to adequate healthcare, education, clean water and electricity.

          The protesters – Sistani presumably among them – believe that Iran, as well as the US, are more concerned with wielding regional influence than the needs of ordinary Iraqis. One of the demonstrators’ slogans is “Iran out, out.” 

          The Iranian regime may be good at extending its power base, but it has shown itself woefully inadequate at the business of governing people.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 November 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 23 November 2919:

Sunday, 10 November 2019

ISIS women - the new danger

    “Remaining and expanding” (baqiya wa’tatamaddad) became the official slogan of Islamic State back in 2015, when its first territorial losses began to register. It was quoted defiantly on Monday October 28, 2019 by an ISIS wife to journalists visiting the al-Hol holding camp, after US President Donald Trump had announced the death of self-styled caliph and leader of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 

        Al-Hol, one of several such camps in north-eastern Syria, is where some 70,000 supporters of Islamic State – the equivalent of a moderate-sized town in the US or the UK – are retained. It is crammed with tents housing the thousands of children and their mothers, most of whom remain fanatic supporters of ISIS. One woman, wearing a black abaya and face-covering niqab, told reporters: “Our faith will not change. The day of revenge will come, and the Islamic State will remain…Even if our men are captured, we are also soldiers of the Islamic State.”

        This defiance is not unexpected. Even before the Turkish incursion over the border into Syria on October 21, Al-Hol was awash with the violent ideology of ISIS, into which the children were being indoctrinated day by day.

        ISIS women had turned one of the tents into a court that administered Islamic State’s version of Sharia law. In September they found a 16-year-old girl guilty of apostasy. After the verdict was announced, women pulled knives from their black abayas and began stabbing her repeatedly. Kurdish police intervened and bore her off to a clinic, but later she died.

        Several other inmates have been attacked or killed by fanatical ISIS women. On October 1, Kurdish police stormed a tent and rescued two women who had been sentenced to death, and were about to be executed by stabbing. The women fought back with knives and pistols. A Western observer who visited the camp in June reported that the foreigner annex of al-Hol “seems to hold a small core of organized and extremely militant women who plot and prey upon others...” She said hard-line detainees were trying to maintain the cruel strictures of the caliphate inside the camp, including whipping women who were caught smoking, and encouraging their own children to beat up the children of those deemed unbelievers.

        Abdul-Qader al-Ofeidly, commander of the Kurdish police force known as Asayish which guards the camps. told journalists that a raid in September had uncovered hand grenades and the body of a woman who had been killed by other detainees.
        In recent weeks, detainees have stabbed a number of guards and beaten other residents to death. Al-Hol, in particular, has been described as a “ticking timebomb”, and a “mini caliphate”. Most such stabbings take place in a high-security area known as the Annex, home to some 10,000 hard-line women ISIS supporters from countries other than Syria or Iraq. “Foreign women are trying to impose religious classes on all women in the camp,” said al-Ofeidly.

        The Kurds have long warned that they cannot hold the prisoners indefinitely, and now say their forces are stretched thin as they send hundreds of guards as reinforcements to join the forces resisting Turkey’s incursion over the border. They have also halted operations against ISIS, which continues to stage attacks in Syria and Iraq.

        The Kurds in north-eastern Syria are administering not only holding camps, but a number of prisons detaining ISIS fighters. A few days after some of its Kurdish guards had left, more than 100 ISIS detainees escaped from one of the prisons. Shortly afterwards hundreds of ISIS wives also fled nearby camp Roj. On October 11 dozens of residents in al-Hol attacked an exit gate in an apparent escape attempt before Kurdish security forces brought the situation under control. Video from a closed-circuit camera showed security forces chasing women in black robes through the center of the camp.

        The Kurdish-controlled Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are struggling to maintain order both in holding camps and prisons. The ISIS leadership, spurred on by the death of al-Baghdadi, is exploiting the chaos to mobilize its adherents, men and women. The remaining guards at al-Hol have been attacked and had petrol poured over them, while the body of a 10-year-old child was found in a backpack, guards told a visiting journalist.

        Meanwhile at the Ain Issa camp, home to some 13,000 women with suspected links to Islamic State and their children, at least 750 people are reported to have fled. After Turkish shelling struck close to the area on October 13, they began to riot and scared away the guards. Jelal Ayaf, the co-chair of the camp’s management, said sleeper cells within the civilian section emerged during the riot, and attacked the remaining guards.

        Western countries, including the US and the UK, have refused to repatriate citizens who joined ISIS, fearing they may not have enough evidence to convict them in criminal courts. Kurdish police force commander, al-Ofeidly, maintains that it is the foreign women who are the main threat in the camp, and echoes calls by Kurdish leaders for their home countries to take them back. Continued inaction by the West on this front may soon result in the very outcome prophesied by the women zealots of Islamic State – ISIS will remain and it will expand.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 10 November 2019:
Published in the MPC Journal, 10 November 2019:

Monday, 28 October 2019

Normalization – the ultimate betrayal or the path to peace?

This article of mine appears in the current edition of The Jerusalem Report, dated November 11, 2019
          For hard-line supporters of the Palestinian cause, “normalization” (or “tatbia” in Arabic) is the worst political sin any Palestinian can commit. It has been adopted as a term of abuse by the Palestinian leadership and by organizations which support them, including the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, to stigmatize any form of joint Palestinian-Israeli activity. 

          In June 2019 the Palestinian Authority (PA) sacked a man from its education ministry and removed him as council chief of the West Bank village of Deir Kadis after a social media video showed four Israeli neighbours joining in the celebrations at his son’s wedding.

          In December 2018 a Palestinian court in Ramallah sentenced a Palestinian-American to imprisonment for life for brokering the sale of a house in the Old City of Jerusalem to an Israeli organization.

          In September 2016 the PA arrested four Palestinians for sharing a cup of coffee with Jewish community members in the West Bank town of Efrat, claiming that it was a crime for Palestinians to meet socially with Jewish settlers because it promoted normalization. 

          In short, in the view of the anti-normalizers, no form of joint activity, cooperation or dialogue with Israelis is acceptable - even engaging with Israeli peace activists who have the best of intentions towards them. All such undertakings must be viewed as collaboration with the enemy, the “colonial oppressors” of the Palestinian people.

          The elephant in this room is the fact that every day some 130,000 Palestinians cross into Israel from the West Bank to work for some 8,100 employers. They engage in a whole variety of jobs and their employment is an important part of the West Bank economy. Palestinians working in Israel bring home about 5 billion shekels ($1.4 billion). Their average salary is two-and-a-half times the average salary in the Palestinian autonomous areas.

          In addition to the Palestinians who work in Israel, around 36,000 are employed in Israeli firms in the West Bank, many earning up to three times the average Palestinian wage. Israel has established several industrial zones there, comprising around 1,000 businesses in all.

          This on-going demonstration of Palestinian-Israeli joint activity on a massive scale is rarely referred to by the anti-normalization activists, perhaps because of the sheer number of Palestinians, multiplied by their families, involved, or perhaps because of the economic benefits the Palestinian community undoubtedly derives from it. Attempts by the anti-normalizers to interfere with this would probably result in a political backlash from the substantial numbers of Palestinians whose livelihood depends on their Israeli jobs.

          So turning a blind eye to this inconvenient aspect of the issue, the anti-normalization campaign has devised a long and detailed rationale for its programme. Produced in 2011 by one of the founding organizations of the BDS movement, the paper (republished as “What is Normalization?”) seeks to define the term in relation to its most important manifestations. The arguments are deployed in a mainly calm and reasoned manner, designed to convince the intelligent reader of their validity. Their cogency, however, is entirely dependent on acceptance of the document’s core assumptions – that Israel is, in their terms, both a “colonial oppressor” and an apartheid state. 

          The “colonial oppressor” charge, made repeatedly in the paper, is shorthand for the anti-Zionist argument that Israel was created as the result of invasion and occupation by Western colonialists, and that the Jewish people have no historic connection to the Holy Land. “It is helpful to think of normalization,” runs the paper, “as a ‘colonialization of the mind’.” This view ignores the fact that the League of Nations and the United Nations, with the world’s approval, endorsed establishing a Jewish homeland in the area once known as Palestine. (The official wording of the Mandate handed to Great Britain includes: “…recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”)

          Ignoring or rejecting the internationally approved basis for the creation of Israel, the essential call of the paper is for resistance to Israel’s existence. Any joint project, it says, “that is not based on a resistance framework serves to normalize relations.” However the paper does not venture into any definition of “resistance”, nor offer any assessment of what the limits of such action should be. So it has no room for considering that the steps taken by Israel to protect its citizens against decades of terrorist activity, often termed “resistance”, are largely what explain the “oppressor” tag. 

          The authors attempt to persuade Arab-Israelis – that is, Palestinian citizens of Israel who form some 20 percent of the population – that they are living in an apartheid state. This argument, at least, must fall on deaf ears. As voters, tax-payers, workers and citizens in a fully-functioning multi-ethnic state, it is patently obvious to Israel’s Arab population that apartheid philosophy forms no part of the democratic functioning of their country. 

          The authors go on to argue that when Israeli-Arab citizens participate in international events (they cite as an example the Eurovision song contest) they contribute to what they call a “deceptive” appearance of tolerance, democracy and normal life in Israel. In short the authors assert that Israel is an intolerant and undemocratic country where a normal life is impossible. Such an assertion, clearly at odds with reality, just as the constantly repeated apartheid charge, can gain hold only on people who have no direct knowledge of Israel and are prepared to believe whatever they are told. 

          Turning to the international context, the paper urges its BDS supporters to refrain from participating in any event that “morally or politically equates the oppressor and oppressed” since such an event “normalizes Israel’s colonial domination over Palestinians.” The authors repudiate all efforts at fostering reconciliation, healing or dialogue unless such initiatives explicitly aim “to end oppression”, as they conceive it.

          They pick out two Palestinian-Israeli bodies dedicated to dialogue and joint action aimed at achieving a peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestinian dispute – OneVoice and IPCRI (the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information). Both are roundly excoriated because, in the authors’ view, their purpose is too limited. They do not embrace the need to struggle jointly against “Israel’s colonial and apartheid policies,” and they ignore “the rights of Palestinian refugees.” In short, the paper asserts that such joint cooperative initiatives aimed at fostering peace “serve to normalize oppression and injustice.” 

          As for the two-state solution, specifically promoted by IPCRI, the BDS authors reject it out of hand. In their view acknowledging Israel’s right to exist at all “advocates an apartheid state in Israel that disenfranchises the indigenous Palestinian citizens” and ignores the “right of return” of the Palestinian refugees.” 

          In passing it might be noted that in 1948 up to 750,000 Palestinian Arabs fled their homes. Over the years the UN body dealing with the problem, UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency) developed a unique method of counting them – they passed on the refugee status to their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, regardless of whether these people had acquired citizenship in their host countries. For example 1.8 million Jordanian citizens are still classified by UNRWA as Palestinian refugees. 

          As a result UNRWA asserts that today there are more than 5 million Palestinian refugees – a number growing exponentially, year by year. The figure is seized on by BDS, which demands the “right of return” for all of them, without explaining how the dwellings that 70 years ago housed 750,000 people could today accommodate 5 million.

          It seems clear from what BDS and its supporters write and say that, in their minds, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not over and the sovereign state of Israel is a temporary phenomenon that will be overthrown, given sufficient time and effort. Any attempt at reconciliation, at normalization, undermines this objective. It is a sad fact that by refusing to accept that Israel is a permanent presence in the Middle East, by advocating continuing resistance and turning their backs on any attempt at reconciliation, they are essentially condemning generations of Palestinians, as well as Israelis, to a perpetual state of conflict.

          To avoid this outcome, the anti-normalization campaign would need to reassess the political situation taking account of current realities, and reshape its objectives into achieving something politically feasible. 

          The Abraham Fund is a leading non-partisan, non-profit Israeli organization working to advance coexistence and equality among Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens. On August 29, 2019 it published the results of a research study among Jewish voters in the recent election, targeting those who had voted for Centre Left parties. The research showed that a party highlighting issues of concern to Arab communities suffered no deleterious effect on the level of its support, while including a message about equality between Israelis and Arabs increased its support by 11 percent. The study concluded that there is a base of positive attitudes among left-leaning Israeli voters on which to build future Arab-Israeli cooperation. 

          There is also already a plethora of positive action. All across Israel, people of good will are reaching out to their Arab neighbors in a whole range of joint ventures aimed at fostering friendship and ending decades of hostility. There are literally hundreds of organizations and groups in every field – economic, educational, industrial, commercial, agricultural – actively encouraging cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. 

          To pluck out just a few examples. Tech2Peace brings Israeli and Palestinian young people together to learn tech skills. The Palestinian Internship Program (PIP) provides young Palestinian graduates with work experience at leading Israel-based companies. The Hand in Hand centre for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel is a network of integrated, bilingual schools for Jewish and Arab children. The Hagar school is an integrated, bilingual educational institution for Jewish and Arab students in the Negev. Olives of Peace is a joint Israeli-Palestinian business venture to sell olive oil. Daniel Barenboim has created a world-class orchestra – the West-Eastern Divan – by bringing together young Israeli and Arab musicians without regard to ethnic or political affiliations. The Peres Center for Peace and Innovation runs an impressively wide range of programmes fostering joint Israeli-Palestinian cooperation across business, agriculture, education, health, culture and sport.
The list of such joint Israeli-Arab ventures aimed at breaking down barriers and promoting understanding is very long. All such efforts are condemned out of hand by anti-normalization campaigners, and their influence reaches deep into the Palestinian political leadership. Clearly they fear that normalization is the thin end of a wedge that will promote mutual understanding and eventually end the age-long Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

But this total rejection of normalization could prove to be their Achilles heel. If those who seek peace – both Israelis and Palestinians – began promoting the concept of normalization with the same zeal as those who expend so much energy opposing it, they might find themselves beating the rejectionists at their own game.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 30 October 2019: